Asseb as Symbol for the Restoration of Ethiopia’s Natural Seacoast

                                        Professor Negussay Ayele


At the outset, let me suggest that the reader can glean relevant historical information on Ethiopia and its Red Sea coast, the Eritrean region and on Afars and Asseb from the works of the following writers:

R. Pankhurst, Menassie H., S. Rubenson, Zewde R., Hassen Umer A, Mesfin A., Yaeqob H.M., J.S. Trimingham, Zewde G.S., Tekeste N., Amare A.B, S.H. Longrigg, Tesfatsion M., A. Dombrowski, A. A. Adou, H. Erlich, Abdel Majid F., M. Abir, G.K.N. Trevaskis, Yemane M., G.W.B. Huntingford. Cf., also Final Report of the United Nations Commissioner in Eritrea, GA Official Records, Seventh Session, Supplement No. 15 (A/2188) New York, 1952; The 1994 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Of late, scores of articles on the subject appear in the local press in Ethiopia, including Tobia, Reporter Tomar, in RAIJ published in Germany, and on several sites of cyberspace.

"The struggle for Asseb region is as much a struggle for the right of the dismembered Afar people to be reunited with their motherland as it is for the restoration of Ethiopia’s natural right to its own seashores. Asseb, therefore, is an abbreviated expression or capsule for the entire set of problems related to the forcible severing of the Eritrean region from Ethiopia."

           Readers who have followed developments on the Horn of Africa in recent years with interest will have noticed that in the past couple of years, there has been a high volume of writings by Ethiopians-- especially on the Internet--dealing with the question of Ethiopia’s access to the sea in the wake of the armed conflicts between TPLF-Ethiopia and EPLF-Eritrea. Most of these writings concentrate on Asseb and call for its restoration to Ethiopia. For their part, EPLF-Eritrean partisans say very little on Asseb, gloating instead in Ethiopia’s ‘failure’ to recover Asseb in the recent fighting, and in the verbal sparring between the TPLF and Ethiopians opposed to its policy on the issue.


     “Why Asseb?” Well, “Why not Asseb?” If it was right for Ethiopians to fight for Badme, for Zalambessa, for Tsorona, for Bure…, why not for Asseb? If these other localities are said to be part of Ethiopia, so was the Asseb region and, for that matter so was the whole of Eritrea. The Afar people of the region have been very much part and parcel of Ethiopia for generations. It was only TPLF’s cavalier un-Ethiopian decision to dispense with Asseb--no questions asked--in 1991, that enabled EPLF to take it. To be sure, the defunct governments of the Emperor and the Derg were also partly responsible for the political and military failure in Eritrea in general and in Asseb region in particular. Needless to say, this was in large part due to the secessionist and pro-secessionist armed struggles against those regimes. The upshot is that today Ethiopians are being told by their own government that Asseb belongs to EPLF, and for Ethiopians to take Asseb would be “an act of terrorism” or “thuggery, fit only for the leaders in Asmara.” 


Afar Unity, Asseb and Ethiopia's Natural Sovereign Seashores


The more one delves into the Asseb question, the more one can appreciate the fact that for Ethiopians, Asseb has become a shorthand expression or a code word for indignation about something not right, something missing, something snatched or stolen. Asseb is in a way a metaphor for much deeper and more complex perception focusing on hitherto un-addressed fundamental national interest questions in the collective psyche of the Ethiopian people. Different aspects of the Asseb issue appeal to different people. The transfer of Eritrea to EPLF in 1991 with its present de facto border depriving Ethiopia of her own seashores—including her ships and other properties--was an act of thievery, treachery and betrayal by TPLF and EPLF, and Asseb is a reminder of that sinister act against Ethiopia. Thus, Asseb symbolizes and encapsulates the views of Ethiopians frustrated by the ruling elites who compound their earlier mistakes (deliberate or not) by piling up even more mistakes and then giving convoluted un-Ethiopian views on Ethiopia’s legitimate claim to Asseb region and its seashores. Asseb represents the Afar people who have been part and parcel of Ethiopia; it represents the vast, ecologically contiguous region on the Horn historically, culturally, economically and logistically tied to the broader area of Ethiopia; it represents a seaport that has been a vital lifeline with the outside world for all Ethiopians for centuries.


It would be a mistake for Ethiopians of different political hues who are passionate about Asseb to think of it only as a port town. Asseb is much more than a port. Asseb is a region in which a sizable segment of the Afar people of Ethiopia live. Nor should Ethiopians fight for restoring Asseb with disregard to the wishes and choices of the Afar inhabitants severed from their kith and kin in the rest of Ethiopia. The struggle for Asseb region is as much a struggle for the right of the dismembered Afar people to be reunited with their motherland as it is for the restoration of Ethiopia’s natural right to its own seashores.  


Asseb, therefore, is an abbreviated expression or capsule for the entire set of problems related to the forcible severing of the Eritrean region from Ethiopia. It is a constant reminder and warning to all concerned that it takes more than border skirmishes, “colonial boundary treaties” or international peacekeepers to resolve critical political, territorial and sovereignty issues pertaining to Ethiopia-Eritrea. And, today Asseb has become the lightening rod for all those chronic and acute problems. When they first came to power in Addis Ababa in 1991 the current rulers were described by some observers as ‘poachers’ posing as ‘gamekeepers.’ So far, both TPLF and EPLF have behaved as poachers with respect to the interests of the vast majority of Ethiopia-Eritrea peoples--especially the Afar in the region of Asseb. Justice, peace, development and security of the region requires a different mentality, psychology, commitment, motivation and frame of mind than that of the ‘poachers’ on the Horn otherwise known as EPLF/PFDJ and TPLF/EPRDF. Let us now sketch some of the points of significance of Asseb in the present ongoing Ethiopia-Eritrea discourse.


It should be appreciated by all concerned that the relationship between the Afar people of the wider Assab region on the Horn and the rest of the Ethiopian people is one that transcends the artificial colonial boundaries and divisions imposed on everyone in the Horn of Africa in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The roots of these relations can be traced as far back as four million years ago to “Lucy” of Hadar. The relationship between the Afar and the rest of the Ethiopian people has been maintained uninterrupted historically in war and peace, including territorial and political struggles for power and space, which was and is par for the course in Ethiopia and elsewhere in the world. The historic link of the Afar people with their non-Afar fellow Ethiopians predates by scores of centuries the creation of colonial entities known today as Jibouti, Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan a little over a hundred years ago. For the record, the Afar inhabited Asseb region which today is part of EPLF-Eritrea, had been nominally part of colonial Eritrea for only forty years from 1890 to 1936. For centuries before that period and from 1952 to 1991, the Asseb region has been part of Ethiopia. Even during the four decades of Italian colonialism the region of Asseb had no economic, political, cultural or any other meaningful relations with the rest of colonial Eritrea. In fact, both during the colonial period and the interim British Administration (OETA), the normal natural relations of the people of the Asseb region with hinterland Ethiopia continued unhindered.


As it was with the British and the French colonial powers, the Asseb littoral was of more negative value to the Italians in the sense of controlling Ethiopia’s seacoast in order to control and make it dependent upon them for its transit trade and seafaring activities. Today EPLF, its allies at home and (wittingly or unwittingly) its supporters abroad, are perpetuating that same colonial agenda of keeping Ethiopia land-locked without shame. At his recent appearance at the National Press Club in the United States, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi referred to the defunct 1908 Italo-Ethiopian border treaty as a valid document along which the anticipated border agreement with EPLF is to be concluded. If the UN, the OAU, EU and other individual governments go along with this empty charade, they must know that wittingly or unwittingly they are providing a veneer of empty legitimacy and  formality to an illegal and unjust act. As I have tried to show in foregoing pages, that treaty along with a whole slew of treaties with Italy at that time, is DEAD and buried by Mussolini in 1935-36. It may be necessary for EPLF to cling to those obsolete “treaties”, but why does TPLF also insist on them--if it has the interest of Ethiopia as a whole at heart?


“The people of Afar like any other Ethiopians are proud of their heritage and history. We are one with all Ethiopians. No one can make excuses and take this identity from the Afar people. Only the forces who are anti-Afar people will make claims of separation. We will not hesitate to expose them for what they are. This must be done for the unity of our Ethiopian people.” Sultan Ali Mirah

Hassen Umer Abdella, a studied perceptive writer on Ethiopia-Eritrea and Afar affairs, recently wrote one of his trenchant columns in Amharic entitled “The time honored perpetual bonding of Afars and Ethiopian unity.” In it, he delineates the ageless contours of linkage of Afars with their fellow Ethiopians at large. Among other things, he points out that even after the Italians declared their colony of Eritrea in 1890 including the Afar inhabited coastal region, which they dubbed Dankalia, “Asseb’s predominant economic, social and political relations was more with the Ethiopian hinterland than with the rest of the Eritrean colony.” While attending the TPLF/EPLF “charter” conference in July 1991, Amoita or sultan Ali Mirah, the venerable octogenarian Afar Ethiopian leader (for more than half a century), had told the audience in the presence of both Mr. Isaiass and Mr. Meles that the northern boundary of Afarland is the Red Sea. In a 1992 interview with Dr Fikre Tolossa, the sultan is quoted as having said that:

“The people of Afar like any other Ethiopians are proud of their heritage and history. We are one with all Ethiopians. No one can make excuses and take this identity from the Afar people. Only the forces who are anti-Afar people will make claims of separation. We will not hesitate to expose them for what they are. This must be done for the unity of our Ethiopian people.” 


Elaborating further on the territorial expanse of Afarland on the Horn in the context of Ethiopian unity, the sultan stated:


“…the land of the Afars is bounded as far as Massawa (to the northeast) and Harer (to the southeast). The Afar people have struggled to keep their land with blood. They have made great sacrifices. No one can take their land from them. The Afar people have every right to self-determination…it should be noted that these boundaries are meaningful only in the larger context of a united Ethiopia. To clarify, when we speak of a united Ethiopia, we are talking about national unity in a democratic society in which the principles of equality are observed.” 


Sultan Ali Mirah renewed his call this year for the unification of the Afar people on the Horn under the aegis of Ethiopian sovereignty adding that “we (the Afar people) are disciples of unity…” Over the years, many other Afar leaders have expressed similar views and fought for the cause cited above, even as a few others (including some of the sultan’s own siblings) had different agendas and alliances.


As outlined and mapped out in A. A. Adou’s book, Afars: A Nation on Trial, two-thirds of Afar-inhabited territory on the Horn is in Ethiopia, where at least 90% of the estimated 3.5 million Afar population in the region reside. Therefore, Asseb symbolizes the intertwined sacred cause of the unity of Afars and the restoration of Ethiopia’s natural sovereign outlet to the seas. To achieve one is to achieve the other, and we cannot have one without the other. The two legitimate objectives are inseparable for Afars and all other Ethiopians--if only those at the helm of power in Addis Ababa could get it. The life and future of Asseb region is and will always be inextricably linked to the rest of Ethiopia at large. Forty years of nominal Italian colonial presence in the Horn did not change that. Neither has Asseb’s annexation in 1991 by EPLF with the connivance of TPLF, alter that stark reality. It was an appendage that was never part of the fabric of colonial Eritrea before 1935, and a decade of EPLF rule has alienated and impoverished the region even more. 

"Therefore, Asseb symbolizes the intertwined sacred cause of the unity of Afars and the restoration of Ethiopia’s natural sovereign outlet to the seas. To achieve one is to achieve the other, and we cannot have one without the other. The two legitimate objectives are inseparable for Afars and all other Ethiopians--if only those at the helm of power in Addis Ababa could get it."

In fact, the restoration of Asseb to its rightful owners--Afar Ethiopians--means the resumption of normal natural, economic, cultural, political and other forms of life that had been choked by the chicanery of EPLF and the misguided pro-EPLF policy on the matter by the regime in Addis Ababa. The latter has been arguing adamantly on behalf of EPLF rather than on behalf of Ethiopia or Afar Ethiopians regarding Asseb. It is very sad that the once bustling Ethiopian port of Asseb to which, according to TPLF spokespersons, Ethiopia pumped at least 800 million Ethiopian birr (about $US 100 million) per annum in port fees alone into EPLF’s coffers in the early 1990’s, is “dead.” The expression “dead” can only apply to people and other living organisms, not to inanimate structures or objects. Therefore, to say that Asseb is “dead” means that the Afar and other Ethiopian people as well as Eritreans—and the animals they feed on and depend on—in Asseb are no more. And that is neither a cause for glee, for a victory sign celebrating the success of TPLF/EPLF policy--or for that matter of foreign interlopers who have made it their business to stoke the fires on the Horn. If Asseb is “dead”, it is due to the bankruptcy of EPLF/TPLF’s ‘clever by half’ cabal as well as external meddling, which backfired as of the moment of Eritrean secession in 1991 and then exploded in very destructive armed conflicts since 1998.


In recent years—since 1998 in particular--several writers including Dr Yaeqob Hailemariam, Hassen Umer Abdellah, Amare Afele as well as scores of others on the Internet have addressed facets of the Assab problem in a sustained manner. Likewise, columnists in Tobia, Reporter and several other periodicals and dailies in Ethiopia, have also featured commentaries on Asseb. The said writings revisit the historical, cultural, legal, political, economic and security dimensions pertaining to the issue of Asseb and Ethiopia-Eritrea. Unfortunately, however logical, factual and persuasive the views of these writings may be, the TPLF leadership is not budging from its pro-EPLF guerrilla era position on the Eritrean problem in general and on Asseb in particular. Incredibly, this is so even after EPLF’s 1998 invasion opened the door for questioning where the Ethiopia-Eritrea borders should be. After all, if EPLF-Eritrea wants to grab some slivers of territory after it has gobbled up 121, 000 sq. kilometers of Ethiopian land, then wouldn’t it be an occasion to seek a comprehensive peace agreement that redresses Ethiopian national interest in the region, for a change? What is it they say in English/American language: ‘what is good for the gander is good for the goose?’ The two bosom allies can decide who is goose and who is gander. The point is, if Mr. Issaiass speaks for his Eritrea’s rights on Asseb and the government in Addis Ababa also endorses and reinforces EPLF-Eritrean rights on it, then who speaks for Ethiopia’s rights? 


Wittingly or unwittingly, EPLF crashed the borders question wide open when it precipitated armed conflict in May of 1998. The event created the opportunity for the TPLF--now ruling whatever is left of Ethiopia--to right the wrong it had committed in 1991. The TPLF leadership chooses instead to spew out contorted and convoluted sound bites on the Asseb issue, including “Asseb belongs to Eritrea;” the Ethiopian (TPLF) government will not fight for Asseb;” “Eritrea should send an application” for Ethiopia to use Asseb;  “Eritrea will fight back” ferociously to defend Asseb; if Ethiopia cannot use Asseb it will become “a watering hole for camels;”  “Ethiopia does not need its own sovereign outlet to the sea because it can “shop around for rentals;” it would be “international terrorism” for Ethiopia to try to take Asseb; Ethiopia has “ a right to use the Port of Asseb” under international law; it would be in Ethiopia’s disadvantage to “raise the issue of  Asseb in the negotiations ” etc…The eerie thing about all these disclaimers and ducking pretexts about Asseb is how they jibe with the views of EPLF spokespersons. They say Asseb is Eritrean sovereign territory and there is nothing that Ethiopia can do about it; Ethiopia is not the only landlocked country in the world and it should learn to live with it; the EPLF trounced TPLF forces in the Asseb area and that is why it will not dare try again. Some even wish TPLF-Ethiopia luck in its shopping spree for alternative ports and for managing its affairs with self-imposed “lowered expectations,” etc.


Legal and Political Aspects of Asseb and Ethiopian Seashores


Legal and political issues related to Asseb are, of course, an important part of our discourse. Although international law and international politics and organizations have rarely been kind to Ethiopia historically, they nevertheless continue to be factors to deal with. Of necessity, Ethiopians have to look at international law and politics in historical perspective, not just in theory or in principle. Thus, history remembers how in the 1930’s, the League of Nations imposed sanctions on Ethiopia—the defenseless victim of Italian aggression. History also remembers what happened at the sessions of the Four Power Commissions and the nascent United Nations with respect to the failure to bring to justice the surviving genocidal criminals in Mussolini’s service in Ethiopia. History recalls how Ethiopia was shortchanged in the final territorial settlement on the Horn, including the decision on Eritrea by the Four Power Commission in the 1940’s. 

History remembers how the western world turned a blind eye to Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1977. History remembers that in May, 1936, then U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, sent a telegram to Mussolini urging him to have his forces “enter Addis Ababa quickly to put an end to chaos.” And, incredibly History repeated itself with another U.S. official’s recommendation from London in May. 1991, that “the forces of EPRDF enter the city (of Addis Ababa) as soon as possible to help stabilize the situation.  History remembers how in 1991, an Egyptian UN secretary-general nullified without proper review and deliberation, the painstaking UN General Assembly decision of 1950 and expedited the secession of EPLF-Eritrea from Ethiopia--a bona fide founding member of the United Nations (and of OAU, for what it is worth). History recalls the gratuitous intervention in May, 1995 of the Ambassadors of the United States and of 17 European states, who formally told the Ethiopian people that the TPLF government's laws and institutions were there to stay whether they liked them or not. No doubt, the present TPLF government in Addis Ababa would also like to have it recorded in the history books that when EPLF invaded parts of Tigray in 1998, no one condemned the invasion and, to add insult to injury, the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on both aggressor and victim—once again.


So, it is with these and other unmentioned burdens on their backs and without illusions that the historic people of Ethiopia negotiate the treacherous waters of international politics and laws. A noticeable development in the last three years or so is the increasing numbers of articles, especially in the internet and in the local press in Addis Ababa, on the question of Asseb and the restoration of Ethiopia’s seacoasts. What is equally clear is that pros and cons on this important national interest issue are easy to identify. The armed camp (TPLF and its allies) are on one side, and the unarmed camp which virtually means all others at home and abroad are on another side on the issue of Asseb.


Among writers who have addressed legal aspects of the Asseb issue, one who stands out is Dr Yaeqob Hailemariam with international relations and law training. Since 1998 he has been writing mostly in Amharic in Tobia magazine on the Asseb issue and international law as well as international public opinion. He has also addressed an open letter (a civil plea) to PM Meles Zenawi on the subject urging him and his party to take cognizance of dissenting views on Asseb and strive to restore Asseb to Ethiopian sovereignty and save generations of Ethiopia-Eritrea peoples from relentless bloody struggles. Dr Yaeqob concludes one of his articles by saying,


The main criterion that qualifies one to be fit for citizenship or for leadership of a country is the love that a person has for the country and its people. As far as I am concerned, so long as a person merits the complete love and trust of the people and believes in democracy, it matters little to me whether the next prime minister or president of Ethiopia is Greek or Ethiopian. It is unthinkable that anyone—unless deranged--would deny that Eritrea was historically part of Ethiopia. 

  By way of highlighting salient points involving legal and political issues pertaining to Asseb and Ethiopia’s natural seashores, we shall consider summaries of views by TPLF and by Ethiopians offering alternative views. As amplified in the foregoing pages of the present article and the one before it, the TPLF leadership says in simple cut language that

(a) Eritrea is an independent country; 
(b) Asseb is part of Eritrea and, tough but Ethiopia is landlocked now; 
(c) it would be a breach of international law to try to claim or to take Asseb by force; 
(d) we can shop around to utilize ports elsewhere;
(e) TPLF is ready to reach an agreement on the demarcation of the current de facto Ethiopia-Eritrea border based on ‘colonial treaties’ and the 1964  OAU declaration on borders;
(f) the TPLF does not intend to negotiate with EPLF even on “utilization” of Asseb port. 

Without going helter skelter to locate the sources of these (a-f) points, it is enough to check out Prime Minister Meles’s recent statements on Asseb to the Constituent Assembly in Addis, to the Voice of America, to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. As we move on to alternative views of Ethiopians who do not subscribe to TPLF’s views on Asseb and Ethiopia’s sovereign right to its seashores, there is one important footnote to be added here. And that is how identical these TPLF views on Asseb are--by coincidence or by design--with those of the EPLF. It is also of note that EPLF President Isaiass himself has had no need to say much on Asseb recently, but his speakers do mention it here and there every now and then.


         The alternative view on Asseb and Ethiopia’s right to its seacoasts, preferred by many Ethiopians, present company included, runs along the following lines.


(i) When EPLF-Eritrea seceded by force from Ethiopia in 1991, with the help and blessing of TPLF, the territory was an integral part of one sovereign country with no de jure international boundaries separating the two parts.

 (ii) The forcible act of secession, sham “referendum,” and declaration of de facto independence by EPLF-Eritrea without any due regard as to Ethiopia’s historical, political, territorial and other rights was illegal, and any arrangement thereto will remain invalid as far as Ethiopians of this and succeeding generations are concerned.

 (iii) In 1991, Eritrea was not a colony but an integral part of sovereign Ethiopia and recognized as such by the international community, international law and organizations such as the UN and the OAU. In fact, the internal borders of Eritrea at that time had a sizable Afar coastline named Asseb extending to Massawa while the rest of the former administrative region retained the name of Eritrea. At the very least, both EPLF and TPLF could and should have honored that reality or negotiated something just and fair under the circumstances, than end up making Ethiopia land-locked.

 (iv) It is not Ethiopia’s "utilization" of Asseb or other ports that is at issue; rather, it is the restoration of Ethiopia’s sovereign legitimate access to its natural seashores that was willfully and illegally severed from it by EPLF/TPLF in 1991. What is to be restored is not EPLF-Eritrean territory but in the case of Asseb, only part of Ethiopian territory that was pilfered by force, fraud and international complicity.

 (v) By reason of Fascist Italy’s unilateral abrogation of its treaties and wanton aggression against Ethiopia in the 1930’s, all its colonial treaties with Ethiopia have been rendered null and void and hence, obsolete. Since the invasion, various border regimes have succeeded in the region, including the UN sanctioned federation in 1952 making Eritrea “a federated unit under the sovereignty of the Ethiopian Crown.” Those defunct colonial treaties cannot be invoked or used today to settle conflicts or to demarcate borders. And the 1964 OAU declaration on colonial borders does not apply to Ethiopia-Eritrea, which was already a member of the organization as is.

 (vi) The issue of Asseb which is more than a question of access to the sea through a port could and should have been handled and even been settled when EPLF opened up the question of border claims by invading certain territories in the region, if the TPLF regime wanted to. It had several chances since 1998 again to redress the gross injustice meted to the Ethiopia it has assumed power over.

 (vii) Ethiopia has a responsibility for its sizable Afar population divided into several territories including inside EPLF-Eritrea’s current de facto borders. Both regimes in Asmara and Addis Ababa do not wish this to happen, because it means that the Asseb region and hence its natural seashores will revert back to Ethiopia.

(viii) Any attempt by TPLF and EPLF and their external supporters to transform the current de facto Ethiopia-Eritrea border which dismembers the Afar people of Ethiopia and deprives Ethiopia of her natural seashores, into a demarcated de jure border will remain illegal and unacceptable to Ethiopians. All concerned parties should be aware of this crucial position of most Ethiopians. 


        As can be easily appreciated by the reader who has followed discussions on the question of Asseb--with all that the term denotes—the position of TPLF differs radically from the views of most Ethiopians who have expressed themselves in writing. At the same time, odd as it may sound to an outside observer, the views of TPLF and EPLF on Asseb and on Ethiopia’s natural rights to its seashores are identical. So in effect, the struggle for hearts and minds in the world at large is a two against one proposition--that is, the forces of TPLF+EPLF vs. the unarmed masses of Ethiopia-Eritrea at home and in the Diaspora. Indeed, it becomes doubly confounding to figure out why it was that the two bosom allies (TPLF and EPLF) went to war for the past two agonizing years, sustaining hundreds of thousands of casualties and untold amounts of destruction along their borders. It is also to be noted that the two regimes have not formally suspended or nullified any of the bilateral defense, security, financial and other agreements acknowledged as having been concluded during their honeymoon years of the early 1990’s.


        In his recent address to his Parliament in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi devoted a hefty portion of his time to the question of Asseb. He said, among other things, (assuming the translation by Walta is correct) that ”…we know we have all the right, by international law, to use the Port of Asseb. International law grants landlocked countries to make use of ports of other countries. We could have asked this question. But we did not do that so far for reasons related to the nature of the Eritrean regime…” Long before the United Nations codified a comprehensive Law of the Sea Convention in 1982 and in force since 1996, coastal states and landlocked states had managed in war and peace to do business. Still, it is certainly an important achievement for international law that basic principles and modalities with respect to the high seas, ocean resources and transit provisions are enunciated and adhered to formally by states under the aegis of the United Nations. It is important for all concerned not to have illusions as to the nature of the rights and responsibilities of transit (in this case, coastal or littoral) states and land-locked states that are covered in Part X of the Convention. Pursuant to the foregoing quotation of Mr. Meles, it would behoove us to look at the critical provisions dealing with the matter. The basic operative passage, which puts the matter in its fuller context, is Article 125 of the Convention. It is entitled ”Right of Access of Land-locked States to and from the Sea and Freedom of Transit.” It reads:  

1.   Land-locked States shall have the right of access to and from the sea for the purpose of exercising the rights provided in this Convention including those relating to the freedom of the high seas and the common heritage of mankind. To that end, land-locked States shall enjoy freedom of transit through the territory of transit States by all means of transport.

2.    The terms and modalities for exercising freedom of transit shall be agreed between the land-locked State and transit States concerned through bilateral, sub-regional or regional agreements.

3.     Transit States, in the exercise of their full sovereignty over their territory, shall have the right to take all measures necessary to ensure that the rights and facilities provided for in this Part for land-locked States shall in no way infringe their legitimate interests. 


Subsequent articles under the heading then elaborate the parameters of applying these basic principles for transit rights of land-locked states. What is important to understand here, however, is that 

(a) yes, the Convention asserts that land-locked states have a “right of access to and from the high seas…through the territory of transit states…” and  

(b) the modalities for exercising such transit right “shall be agreed upon” between the two concerned parties 

(c) but, in the exercise of the said right, the transit states shall exercise “their full sovereignty” …and the exercise of rights by land-locked states “shall in no way infringe their legitimate interests.” 

Thus, typical of most legalese, these provisions are a classic example of circumlocutious conundrum in which each side could claim categorical or superceding rights on the matter. While for the record, it is good to know what the current ‘transit to the sea regime’ looks like in international law, the real issue with respect to Asseb is a territorial/sovereignty one and not a question of use of port. 

The Law of the Sea Convention can, when and if the need arises apply to Ethiopia with respect to Jibouti or any other ports the TPLF is said to be shopping for (the number is said to reach ten alternatives to date). For reasons discussed in foregoing pages, as far as most Ethiopians are concerned, 

(a) the Afar Ethiopian Asseb region--not just the port--has been part of Ethiopia’s natural seashores, as the rest of the Red Sea 

(b) that Asseb, as indeed all of Eritrea was severed from Ethiopia by force, fraud and international complicity in 1991 without due regard to Ethiopia’s legitimate rights to access to the seas, and, 

(c) the error or political crime committed earlier should be redressed forthwith.


         Even more critical than international law, is international politics and the balance of forces at play especially in given conflict situations like the current Ethiopia-Eritrea one. The Horn of Africa in general and Ethiopia in particular has been a magnate for international intrigue, intervention and scrambling for far too long. There is hardly any power in history that has not traversed through the region both in the historical past and in the more immediate 19th and 20th centuries. Whereas, for instance, in other parts of Africa one or at most two colonial powers may have been involved in victimizing discrete African regions, multiple colonial and regional expansionists were involved either simultaneously or successively to subdue Ethiopia. This has been ably described in Sven Rubenson’s classic treatise, The Survival of Ethiopian Independence and Ernest Work’s Ethiopia: A Pawn in European Diplomacy, John Spencer’s Ethiopia At Bay, Tesfatsion Medhanie’s Eritrea: Dynamics of a National Question, and more recently, in Ambassador Zewde Retta’s tome (in Amharic), The History of Eritrea (1941-1963). Big and small, near and far colonialists and expansionist polities including Ottoman Turkey, Portugal, Italy, Britain, France, the United States, the (former) Soviet Union, Israel, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Sudan, have all stumped their boots on Ethiopian soil or made their mark otherwise on the making, unmaking and remaking of the country--and some are still continuing to do the same today.


The full history of the Cold War and its legacies has yet to be written fully, but when it does it will have been seen that it has left the African continent--and indeed much of the Third World--strewn with clones, caricatures and carcasses. The Horn of Africa was the first entry point of the Cold War in the continent in the late 1940’s, and the region has yet to be free from its vestiges. International politics, of course, continues in the post-Cold War world, which ushers an era of United States ascendancy as what may be called the new world order’s (disorder?) ‘Omnipower’. 

"The full history of the Cold War and its legacies has yet to be written fully, but when it does it will have been seen that it has left the African continent--and indeed much of the Third World--strewn with clones, caricatures and carcasses."

In recent years, Nicaragua, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Haiti, Palestine and, lest we forget, Russia, are among the entities that have had a taste of American cum Western European political and/or martial hubris. The question before us now is, “What kind of power is the United States exercising on the Horn and what is at stake for its national interest in the region?  It is not an easy question to answer, but the question lingers as one observes developments going from bad to worse in the region while the United States seems to have a hands-on monitoring of the Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict. 

What we do know for certain so far, however, is that the United States had sponsored the federation of Ethiopia-Eritrea and continued to support it for four decades as it enjoyed its Kagnew communications base in Asmara, Ethiopia. We also know that in 1991, the United States, almost by default sponsored the breakup of Ethiopia-Eritrea thereby rendering Ethiopia land-locked. In the course of the Ethiopia-Eritrea armed conflicts since 1998, the United States has been there from the very beginning represented by a high-level envoy, Dr Anthony Lake. The United States has been in the vanguard behind every OAU/UN peace proposals including the current one. We also know that both Mr. Isaiass of EPLF-Eritrea and Mr. Meles of TPLF-Ethiopia have been nitpicking and at times tongue lashing on aspects of United States policy pertaining to their sibling squabbles.


This brings up the question, “What, if any, is the policy or preference of the United States on the territorial sovereignty status of Asseb region and on Ethiopia’s legitimate right of access to the sea?”—even if American policy makers may not couch the question in exactly those terms. The question is not idle because the Algiers agreement initialed by the parties to the conflict was sponsored by the United States and its European allies and endorsed by the UN and the OAU. The said agreement proposes settlement of outstanding border issues in Ethiopia-Eritrea by invoking ‘colonial treaties’ and the 1964 OAU declaration on borders. One infers from this that United States experts in law and politics could not have adhered to the notion of invoking obsolete colonial treaties and invalid declarations as a guide to border settlement on the Horn, they have their ‘eyes wide shut’ or have a certain outcome in mind. What concerns most Ethiopians is the fear that the powers that be, have an interest in keeping Ethiopia--if not the region of the Horn at large-- land-locked, weak, vulnerable and dependent. Are there some things Mr. Meles and Mr. Isaiass know but have not let known about this from the standpoint of their cozy and satisfactory relations—at least so far--with the United States? After all, these relations go back to the late 1980’s, through the well-orchestrated and, to TPLF and EPLF, the very rewarding political intervention by the United States government (or certain key figures in and around it) in London in 1991 and thereafter, through the period following the outbreak of hostilities in 1998-2000.


Aspects of United States recent involvement in Ethiopian affairs have been analyzed briefly by Commodore Tassew Desta in his (Amharic) book, Ethiopian Unity: Memories and Struggles. On page 90 he states that while EPDA -- that the Commodore was a part of -- was told that any “help given to OLF, TPLF and EPLF was not to dismember Ethiopia but only to strengthen the forces fighting the Derg.” However, he realized that the “policy was anti-Ethiopian unity when a few months before the severing of Eritrea from Ethiopia, certain EPDA leaders were advised (by their contacts) that if they open communications with OLF, EPLF and TPLF and reach a working relationship with them and accept the independence of Eritrea, you will be enabled to go to Addis Ababa and establish a (joint) government.” He adds that the EPDA members approached with this proposal declined to compromise their stand on Ethiopian unity—and the rest is history. We may get more from the ‘horse’s mouth’ as they say, when we see Mr Herman Cohen’s writing on intervening in Africa. So, the international politics of Asseb and Ethiopia’s legitimate claim to its own access to the seas is laden with historical weight and undetermined imponderables.


         When the events of 1991 pertaining to the dismemberment of Ethiopia is duly and properly reviewed, it will have been seen that Dr Boutros-Ghali of the UN, Mr Salim Salim of the OAU and other functionaries of powerful nations acted illegally and improperly against the rights and vital interests of the peoples of Ethiopia-Eritrea. They contravened the very principles of the organizations they represented, contradicted earlier international decisions and precedents on Ethiopian sovereignty and territorial integrity without due process. Even now, these parties seem bent on legalizing and formalizing their mistakes of 1991-1993 at the expense of Ethiopia. The tragedy is that it is the very government in Addis Ababa that is eager to be complicit in the politicide of the very Ethiopia it rules. These powers could not have done what they did in 1991 and what they are preparing to do again today if it were not at the behest, the blessing and nudging of the TPLF authorities. For its part, the EPLF can only sit on the sidelines for now and count its blessings, clap clap and hold festivals heralding what Dr Tesfatsion Medhanie at one time described its PR “Kitsch Syndrome” through festivals to celebrate its victory one way or another over Ethiopia.


Asseb and Ethiopian Security & Strategic Interest in the Region


In international politics, it is normal for countries whatever their size or endowment, to determine their national interest in prevailing circumstances, and then pursue it through interstate political, economic, diplomatic, cultural relations. Elements of vital national interest of a state include, in the minimum, promotion and protection of national economic prosperity, amicable relations with a just peace with neighbors and the world at large, political worth and/or clout--at least in one’s region--and the security of the sovereignty, esteem, integrity, institutions and way of life of the nation. Then there is the rider, which is hardly ever openly stated, and that is making sure that the incumbent ruler, party or administration will continue in power. Every country then devises, formally or informally, modalities of pursuing its respective national interest. And that in turn depends on the quality and commitment of its leadership, the resolve and fortitude of its people, the material resources available to it and the vagaries of external pressures and persuasions that it absorbs.


If, for the sake of discussion, we stipulate the above adumbration on the essence of “national interest,” as valid enough, how does it apply to our discussion of Asseb and Ethiopia’s natural seashores? Let us posit the following ‘yea/nay’ (agree/disagree) propositions for an exercise by way of elucidating the subject matter.


(1) A bona fide process of determining, attaining, enhancing and maintaining the national interest of a country involves domestic consensus, harmony and genuine democratic decision making by the nation’s critical mass.

(2) It is expected of a ‘national leadership’ to always work for long-term generational strategic goals with respect to promoting and securing the national interest of one’s country.

(3) Both in perception and in reality, it is incumbent on a given leadership to exude confidence, trustworthiness and competence in handling the pursuit of the country’s own national interest.

(4) It is in a country’s best strategic interest not to be insecure, vulnerable, disadvantaged, dependent, marginalized or (as in the case under discussion) land-locked when it can help it.

(5) If a regime has compromised the national interest of its country, the mistake (or political crime) should not continue to be adhered to and stridently defended to the detriment of the country.    

  (6) If an adversary commits aggression against one’s country, it opens an occasion for redress of injustices sustained earlier—whether it be (of necessity) in the field of battle or at the conference table.

        (7) Whatever the circumstance, the party that has the upper hand in the event of armed struggle, can and usually does demand certain concessions for post conflict settlement of outstanding issues affecting its national interest.


         Taken separately or together, these propositions invite the reader to register ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ to memory or to paper. If one responds in the negative on the propositions, then one needs go no further with the exercise.  If, on the other hand, one says ‘yea’ to a given proposition, then one can apply it to the ongoing debate, discussion, dialogue or duologue—as the case may be—on Asseb. Stipulating ‘yea’ responses to the propositions listed above, let us now indulge in the exercise and see how the Asseb issue pans out on the scales of assuring Ethiopian security and strategic national interest.


         An honest appraisal of what transpired when crucial and fatal decisions were made in 1991 on the secession of EPLF-Eritrea from Ethiopia, is bound to show that those decisions were not made involving (1)domestic consensus, harmony or genuine democratic decision making of the nation’s critical mass” to assure Ethiopia’ s national interest. No doubt, mitigating circumstances could be cited to rationalize those decisions, but the bottom line is that the prevailing guerrilla forces in Ethiopia (including Eritrea) appropriated the spoils of war and declared their decision to be the order of the day. And, as I noted in an earlier (May, 1997) article entitled “What Naeft Can Do…” these elements did not win militarily because they were right; rather they declared themselves to be right because they won militarily. To the extent that (2) it is incumbent on a “national leadership to work for long-term strategic goals with respect to promoting and securing” Ethiopia’s national security and strategic interest. As has been evident in the last decade since the secession of EPLF-Eritrea, the entire process has been a ‘zero-sum’ game with EPLF getting everything and more, while Ethiopia is land-locked and at war with EPLF-Eritrea long after TPLF, EPLF, OLF etc, said “Never Again!” Consequently, the TPLF leadership has been constantly challenged by elements of Ethiopia’s critical mass at home and abroad almost on a daily basis--especially on the Eritrean issue, Asseb and Ethiopia’s legitimate claim to sovereign access to the seas. It is obvious that the “long-term generational national interest of Ethiopia” with respect to its strategic security has not been addressed by its rulers. It is one thing to talk about using the ports of other countries; it is another thing to secure or not to lose at will one’s own sovereign port or access to the sea.


         On the point of “exuding confidence, trustworthiness and competence(3) in handling the pursuit of Ethiopia’s national interest, the rulers in Addis Ababa leave much to be desired. It requires more than winning border skirmishes at great human toll, insisting that UN observers stay 25 Kms on the other side of the “border,” or developing one unit of the country alone to merit confidence. Even if one were to take the EPLF-Eritrean problem as unique having more to do with the camaraderie of the two guerrilla leaderships and ‘betrayed’ trust by one side or the other, the precedent is not one that evokes confidence in the Addis Ababa government. One shudders to countenance what can be expected in the near future with regard to myriads of looming internal and external problems the country would or could face ahead. Given (4) the stipulation that it is in the national interest of Ethiopia to be “secure, robust and self-reliant,” the country’s land-locked status makes it vulnerable and insecure. And saying that Ethiopia is not the only land-locked country or that it can shop around for other ports, does not make the situation any better, strategically more secure and to evoke confidence in the government.


         There is a widespread consensus among knowledgeable (and unarmed) Ethiopians at large that the TPLF regime compromised (5) the national interest of Ethiopia at large in 1991 when it surrendered all of the Eritrean including Asseb and all its seashores and properties. It has refused to accept responsibility for this, even when it had opportunities to cover its shame by reopening the matter following EPLF’s invasion (6) crossing EPLF-Eritrea’s borders with TPLF-Ethiopia in 1998. Again, despite its much touted and repeated military successes (by its own definition) over the EPLF in the past two years, it has refused to make the restoration of Ethiopia’s natural seashores and the unity of Asseb Afars with the majority of their folks in Ethiopia. (7) To make matters worse, it is eager now to seal an Ethiopia-Eritrea border based on bogus and obsolete colonial “treaties” and inapplicable OAU declarations to continue to make Ethiopia land-locked—clearly against vital Ethiopian national interests. It is preparing to do so in the face of widespread civil pleas, protestations and caveats by Ethiopia’s critical but unarmed mass at home and abroad about the bitter legacy that such a treacherous action would leave behind. There is a Swedish saying to the effect that “the death of one is the bread of another.” In this case, what is transpiring right now seems to be a case where the politicide of Ethiopia is to the benefit of EPLF (and TPLF?) and other foreign interests.


Concluding Remarks


         It remains for me now to take leave of the reader with some parting words on the subject of discourse in the foregoing pages, namely Asseb and Ethiopia’s legitimate right to its seashores. In its recent (June/July, 2000) issue, the Amharic periodical, Reporter, featured a cover story on Asseb, entitled “Shall We struggle for Asseb or Abandon it?” edited with commentary by Brook Yeteshawerq. The article presents eight pages of summaries of a cross-section of views on Asseb by more than half a dozen persons, including Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Apropos to the points covered in our discussions so far, the piece had the following succinct statement on Ethiopian perspectives on TPLF’s stand vis--vis Ethiopia’s legitimate claim to its own sovereign access to the sea:


This is not the first time that the enemies of Ethiopia have conspired to block Ethiopia’s access to the sea. And, for brief periods Ottoman Turks, Egyptians and Italians did just that. Once, again (today) the administration of Mr. Meles Zenawi has committed an act inimical to Ethiopia’s interests in a legally dubious manner. Even the counsel of international diplomats like Mr. Herman Cohen to the effect that if Ethiopia is rendered land-locked, there will be serious repercussions, was rejected outright. Nevertheless, this administration  still has time to reverse the illegal act which has deprived 60 million Ethiopians of their right to their own access to the sea. If, however, the current government fails to take care of the problem now—thinking that it can avert it by simply sweeping it under the rug—then surely it is only putting its head under the sand like the ostrich. In that event, future bloodshed is inevitable. (Translation is personal).


Like colonial Italy before it, EPLF’s claim to Asseb is only good for its negative and morbid pleasure of blocking Ethiopia from its own natural seashores. The TPLF also says that it has no intention to restore Asseb to Ethiopia. So, everyone else is supposed to sit and watch how the two sides settle their differences on their loot even as Asseb is described as “dead” and the Afar people in the region remain dismembered. For Ethiopians in general and the Afars in particular this situation is more than a travesty; it is downright criminal. It cannot and must not proceed in its current fatal track.

         In a recent statement to his Parliament in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Meles talked about Asseb and why his government declined to secure and restore Asseb for the Ethiopia he rules, by referring to a ”popular saying” as a metaphor to explain his government’s position on Asseb.

A mother roasts the egg which her son stole and brought to her and feeds him. When the child steals a chicken, she does the same thing. When the child was caught red-handed and flogged after stealing a bull, the mother cries, “my son, my son,” The child turns around and said, “mother, why didn’t you advise me while I was stealing eggs?”

It is not known how the metaphor clarified to his audience the TPLF rationalization of its policy on Asseb. As it happens, however, Mr. Meles chose a parable that actually elucidates the perspectives of the large number of (unarmed) Ethiopians on Asseb and the restoration of Ethiopia’s natural seashores. I respectfully submit that the parable cited above applies to illustrate the following sequence of events.

---The EGG was stolen in 1991-1993 when the TPLF/EPLF and others conspired to have EPLF-Eritrea secede with all of Ethiopia’s seashores and dismembered Afar Ethiopians in the process.

---The CHICKEN was stolen in 1998-2000 when EPLF-Eritrea opened hostilities along the undefined de facto Ethiopia-Eritrea borders, and despite the sacrifices of the Ethiopian people in life and limb (once again) and TPLF-Ethiopia’s military successes, the TPLF regime failed to redress its earlier “mistaken” policy decision and reunite the Afar people and restore the Asseb region to Ethiopia.

--- Now, in the post-May, 2000 period, we stand at a crossroads warning, watching, and waiting to witness if, how and when the BULL is to be stolen--by way of formalizing the theft of Ethiopian seashores through bogus and defunct “treaties” that aim to render Ethiopia land-locked in the near future.


         In case there is any illusion or misunderstanding about this application of Mr. Meles’s choice parable, I should like to remind all concerned that mother Ethiopia had warned all along. It is to be recalled that Professor Asrat Woldeyes (as cited earlier) and Fitawrari Mekonnen Dori, had warned about the theft of the EGG in 1991—and we know what happened to them. Likewise, Addis Ababa University students were shot to death in 1993, when they tried to peacefully demonstrate their opposition to EPLF-Eritrean secession—and then 42 University Professors and Lecturers were summarily dismissed. As amply discussed in these pages, once again, since 1998 countless (unarmed) Ethiopians at home and abroad have, with whatever civil and literary media at their disposal, tried to warn the TPLF and the international community that the CHICKEN is being stolen. “Hello, is anybody in the (armed) TPLF camp and among its supporters, listening?


         If no one is listening, then it can only mean that arrangements are underway to steal the BULL, despite all the valiant efforts of Ethiopians of this generation. But, succeeding generations of Ethiopians--including those in Eritrea--will not take this injustice and chicanery lying down as nothing in life is immutable. After all, time was when there was no Ethiopia-Eritrea border; time was also when colonialism carved the littoral space of Ethiopia. Then there was a time when the Ethiopia-Eritrea entity was a federal union. And now came a time when EPLF-Eritrea was forcibly severed rendering Ethiopia land-locked and the Afar people dismembered. Sooner or later, a time will surely come when all these cyclical political/territorial/sovereignty regime changes will attain a just and steady watermark for Ethiopia-Eritrea and the broader region of the Horn.

October 1, 2000

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Copyright 2000 Negussay Ayele / EOW. Readers may redistribute this article for noncommercial use as long as the text and this notice remain intact. This article may not be resold, reprinted, translated or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author and EOW.